Build empathy by reading personal narrative examples in children’s books, including picture books and middle grade books. In other words, read someone’s authentic memoir based on their life experience. And see how it gives you empathy as you walk in that person’s shoes. (It will also help you become a better personal narrative writer!)
Choose from these picture book and middle-grade book mentor text examples to show your growing writers examples of good personal narrative mentor texts with sensory details, vivid verbs, small moments, and organization. Share with your writers how these personal narrative examples are written with sensory details to show experience and authority.
NOTE: I’m listing children’s books that are not personal narratives per se but still can be used as personal narrative examples. I’m doing this so you have a bigger list of choices to find good books that appeal to your writers and model skillful writing.
If you’re teaching personal narrative, it’s worth reading adult memoirs like Anne Laaott’s Bird by Bird, Jeannee Wall’s The Glass Castle, or Suleika Jaouad’s Between to Kingdoms. (Three of my favorite books of all time.)
Here are my favorite children’s memoir books to share with growing writers who want to write a personal narrative or memoir. Starting with a mentor text of sample writing will make your students’ writing stronger. That’s what I recommend that works for me in my writing workshops for children.
Picture Books: Personal Narrative Examples
I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo
A little girl remembers times with her beloved Popo…visiting the park, celebrating New Year’s Day, and looking at the globe to see where they are in Taiwan and where the girl will be moving, San Diego. She moves to the U.S. and thinks of Popo during her days, talks to her on video calls, and returns for a short visit. Then, Popo is gone from this world but she visits the little girl in her dreams and their love endures.
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
Young Patricia recounts staying with her Babushka when a thunderstorm arrives. Her Babushka takes Patricia around the farm to gather ingredients, counting to see how long in between the lightning and thunder, then they go inside to make a special cake, a Thunder Cake. Based on Patricia’s personal story from childhood.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Olemauan wants to learn to read and begs to go to the outsiders’ school. But it’s not what she expected. She’s treated with cruelty and forced to do endless chores, yet her desire to learn remains. The nuns’ abuse doesn’t crush this brave girl’s spirit. Based on the true story of the author, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, her story shows the power of spirit and literacy to survive and overcome even the most horrible of circumstances.
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Based on Jessica’s real life when she was an adult, read how after her leg was amputated and she connected to a service dog named Rescue. Not only is this a sweet story of friendship and resiliency, but it also models these writing craft moves: details that matter, inner dialogue, and parallel storytelling from both main characters’ perspectives.
Let Me Fix You a Plate a Tale of Two Kitchens by Elizabeth Lilly
Narrative writing that reads like a personal narrative example because it’s based on the author’s childhood… A little girl and her family visit both parents’ families, starting with the grandparents in West Virginia and later visiting grandparents in Florida. Each grandparents’ home is filled with love, memorable food, unique decor, and distinct culture. Beautifully written with descriptive sensory images that transport readers to each setting.
My Beautiful Voice by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
A girl narrates in lyrical and sensory language about her emotional journey at school and how her wonderful teacher inspires her to feel safe enough to write a poem that she later shares with her classmates. It’s not a personal narrative, but it feels like a true story.
Across the Bay by Carlos Aponte
Based on the author/illustrator’s childhood, this is a tender story about little Carlitos who leaves his family’s home to travel across the bay to San Juan and search for his father. His experiences give readers the flavors of Puerto Rico with the old men playing dominoes, a parade with singing and guitars, and kite flying near the castle. Tired from his unproductive search, a park ranger reminds Carlitos that his father will be forever in his memory whether he’s found or not. Later, Carlitos returns home to his mama, abuela, and cat.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien
Alan stutters when he talks yet fluently speaks without a stutter with animals. He develops a passion for animal welfare and conservation, wanting to use his voice to speak up for animals. In particular, he becomes passionate about jaguars and bravely uses his voice in Belize to make a case to save the jaguars. And his words persuade the government. The jaguars get a protected preserve. (Written in the third person.)
A Walk in the Words by Hudson Talbott
If you’re looking for personal narrative examples in picture books, this story shares the stress and difficulties the author had in childhood around reading, especially compared to others who read books without trouble. Eventually, he figured out ways to read on his own by looking at words differently.
How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion by Ashima Shiraishi, illustrated by Yao Xiao
Written by one of the world’s youngest and best climbers, Ashima shares her experiences with climbing difficult “problems” which is what climbers call the boulders they climb. It’s more abstract and metaphorical than I usually want in a mentor text but an #ownvoices personal narrative example that focuses on a growth mindset, perseverance, and facing challenges with grit.
Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond between a Soldier and his Service Dog by Former Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan, USA with Bret Witter, photographs by Dan Dion
Luis experiences post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities. His service dog, Tuesday, helps Luis’ nightmares and balance as he walks down the subway stairs. This picture book follows a typical day in the life of Luis and Tuesday from breakfast to bedtime which doesn’t exemplify small moments.
Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
I love how Nikki Grimes writes poetry that collectively makes a narrative story that could be used as a personal narrative example. This book of poems tells the story of a girl named Tiana who loves words. Her style is conversational and relatable, made even more interesting with textured collage illustrations. “Pigeons masquerade as wildlife. They can’t fool me. We’re all city folk.” This book makes an inspirational, amazing mentor text to help children write about their own lives.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
The love between son and father is a beautiful thing in this story. Every morning, his father knock-knocks on the boy’s door, and the boy pretends to be asleep. But one day, the father isn’t there. And he doesn’t come back. The boy misses his dad in all the moments of the day that they did together like making scrambled eggs and helping with homework. So he writes his dad a letter. The letter his dad writes him back from jail is filled with words of wisdom and love. Heart-wrenching, beautiful, and hope-filled.
IslandBorn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Lola longs to remember the island of her birthplace, but she left the island as a baby and can’t remember. Lola interviews her family and friends, listening to their snap-shot, detailed stories of the island’s bats, music, agua de coco, heat, and the Devil Monster. Through their stories, she creates her own tapestry of island memories that will always be in her heart. Stunning illustrations explode in colorful exuberance.
My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Lindsey Yankey
Mina writes a beautiful, atmospheric tribute to her grandma in this story of growing up in Iran buying bread, playing, and going to prayers but mostly spending loving time with her grandma. The illustrations with intricate patterns and muted colors set a warm, comforting tone.
Just Like Jesse Owens by Ambassador Andrew Young and Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Gordon C. James
Almost a personal narrative, Andrew grews up in the segregated South during the World War II era. He was inspired by Jessie Owens to be the best he could be.
Palace of Books by Patricia Polacco
Fans of Polacco’s books will enjoy this personal narrative story of her moving from the farm to a town where she starts school. Patricia discovers the library and the library’s collection of bird artwork from John Audubon. Not only does she fall in love with the library, but drawing her own bird pictures as well.
My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World by Malcolm Mitchell, illustrated by Michael Robertson
Henley finds reading hard — and when his teacher gives the class an assignment to find their favorite book in the whole wide world, he struggles to find anything that he doesn’t hate. After asking his librarian and bookstore owner for help unsuccessfully, his mom helps him realize that inside he has his own story. What he brings to school, his favorite book in the world–is a story that he writes about himself! Use this as a personal narrative example.
Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala by Meenal Patel
An irresistible sensory experience of India with vivid descriptions! When Priya helps her Babi Ba cook rotli, her Babi Ba shares her memories of India… the smell of roasted cumin and masala, the sound of motorbikes whizzing by, the taste of a steaming cup of cha, the feel of the hot sun on your face, views of arches and domes of the buildings, rainbow of saris, and brightly colored marigolds. I adore the writing, the illustrations, and the story that celebrates India’s culture and their grandparent-grandchild relationship.
Finding My Dance by Ria Thundercloud, illustrated by Kalila J. Fuller
Ria loves dancing — and starts dancing as a child in a powwow. As her love of dancing grows, she learns different styles and becomes a professional dancer, and travels all over the world.
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela thinks her name is too long …until her father explains about each person she was named for — like Esperanza, Alma’s great-grandmother who hoped to travel. This helps Alma make a personal connection to each person she’s named after.
Middle-Grade Books: Personal Narrative Examples
Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin
Growing up in Cold War Russia, Yevgeny’s Jewish family is crowded into one room of an apartment housing many other families and a KBG spy, so he sleeps under the table –and draws under it, too. His mother works at the ballet and is obsessed with Baryshnikov and finding Yevgeny’s talent — which they discover is art. Even though their lives are filled with secrets and loss, Yevgeny finds happiness with his family and art.
26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola
DePaola narrates one wild year in his life that starts with a hurricane. Filled with humor and charm, this is a Newbery Honor book but not my favorite for writing. If you use this as one of your personal narrative examples, you might consider looking at where dePaola tells vs. shows.
My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
Paulsen’s stories about his dogs show his deep respect and enduring love for each animal, starting with Snowball in the Philippines and later, back in the United States with Ike, a hunting dog.
Note: Sensitive readers may not like the hunting stories in this book.
Knucklehead Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka
Growing up Scieszka was a WILD time. There’s quite a bit of potty humor in Scieszka’s hilarious musings on his childhood, but the writing is excellent and captures personal narrative in short, digestible stories.
Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher
Ralph Fletcher is a respected writing teacher and author of writing pedagogy. His short stories from childhood show a large, close-knit family that gave him the foundation for his storytelling as an adult.
Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen
It’s summer vacation and our 12-year-old narrator needs to earn money. Which he does by starting a lawn mowing business. Not only that, he learns about investing his money and makes a lot more money than he could have imagined. Fictional but reads like personal narrative examples.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
The author of this book skillfully crafts a heartfelt story about growing up, family, and finding your identity in the context of adoption, the historical maltreatment of Native Americans, and the mystery of your own heritage. Edie’s mom is an adopted Native American who can’t trace her heritage. When Edie unexpectedly finds a box of photos and letters from the woman she suspects was her mom’s birth mother, it prompts a journey to discover the truth of her heritage. And the truth is not what she expects but it opens her eyes (and ours.)
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (VERSE)
In this personal narrative memoir, Thanhha reveals the overwhelm of immigrating from Vietnam to the American South in the 1970s, a completely different culture and language. Despite feeling turned inside out, Hà resiliently figures out life in the U.S., despite the many challenges she faces. I loved this book –it’s written with such an authentic voice. Plus, it gives readers a first-hand look at an immigrant experience. Winner of the National Book Award and Newbery Honor.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (VERSE)
Written in verse, this is the author’s life story about growing up as an African-American girl in the South and the North during the Civil Rights movement. It’s a powerful introduction to this time period and the issues of race in the United States since it’s told through the eyes of a child. National Book Award finalist.
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
It’s worth including this memoir of boyhood stories, but I don’t recommend it because the writing isn’t up to Dahl’s usual zestiness. (Feel free to explore why the writing isn’t his best as a writing exercise!)
Wink by Rob Harrell
A funny, standout cancer story based on the author’s own life… When Ross is diagnosed with a rare tumor, he immediately starts radiation treatment. A goofy, kind-hearted radiation tech gets Ross interested in alternative punk music. To impress a girl, Ross asks the tech for guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music help Ross express his frustrations and find his joy, leading to some surprising results — like an unexpected friend. (Note: Some questionable language.)
The In-Between by Katie Van Heidrich
This is the heartbreaking, difficult story of a girl facing insecure housing. Katie moves all the time, each time losing things each time. Now, she’s in a hotel room with her mom and two siblings. Since her parents are divorced, she visits her dad every other weekend but she doesn’t feel at home there on the couch or with her dad’s new wife. Katie’s sick of it all, feeling alienated and lonely. It’s a slice-of-life memoir that is sad, real, and a tiny bit hopeful. Sensitive readers: the text includes the word hell.
A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat
In this graphic novel memoir, Dan describes a transformative trip during the summer before high school that helped him grow from awkward and insecure to confident and outgoing. The trip gave the students lots of freedom. He tries beer and cigarettes. He meets a cute girl and finds the courage to get to know her, even sharing a kiss. He falls in love with the cultures and languages, too. Readers will probably want their own European experiences, too. Although, I hope that the kids would be better supervised than Dan was!
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez (VERSE)
Margarita narrates scenes from her life in verse, her Cuban and American heritages. Beautiful and descriptive with relatable themes of feeling like an outsider and trying to understand your own identity make this one of the best personal narrative examples to read.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
Just like the author’s own experience as an adoptee, it’s hard for Makeda to be a black adopted girl in a white family that she loves but doesn’t feel like she fits– or is even seen. But there are even more challenges for Makeda these days, starting with being the little sister to a newly-distant teenager, moving to a new town away from her BFF, having parents who constantly fight, and watching her mom’s mental health deteriorate and blaming herself. After her mom’s mania takes them on a trip to Colorado which abruptly nose dives into severe depression and a suicide attempt, Makeda reaches out for help.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Hands down, this is one of the best life-changing middle grade books you’ll ever read. Narrated by Melody, we learn what it’s like to be trapped in a body with cerebral palsy that doesn’t allow her to speak or take care of herself. No one except her parents thinks that she’s smart until one day. She gets a chance to prove it using new technology. But that doesn’t solve all her problems. Her story is heartbreaking, real, and inspiring. (This is not an actual personal narrative example, but it reads like it is.)
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, writes her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. Marcus says he’s innocent and he can prove it, which sets Zoe on a quest to find out the truth for herself, even if her mom and dad forbid it. You won’t be able to put down this winsome story with a heroine you can’t help but adore, a story that illuminates social justice with themes of family, friendship, and love. (This is not an actual personal narrative example, but it reads like it is.)
Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid by Jerry Spinelli (ages 11+)
Spinelli shares stories from his teen years that helped him become the author and storyteller he is today.
The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw (ages 11+)
In this beautifully written, eye-opening story, we follow the life of Yuriko, a Japanese girl who lives in Hiroshima during World War II. Initially, her life revolves around drama with her family and friends, just like a typical child’s life in any country. But, in this recounting of Burkinshaw’s mother’s actual experience, her life is torn apart when the atomic bomb is dropped. Not to mention that it comes as a shock to learn that Japan has been losing the war. Yuriko’s life becomes a nightmare of survival and endurance.
Family Style by Thien Pham
In Thien Pham‘s immigration story, he begins with his life in a refugee camp where he played and watched his parents be entrepreneurial. When they immigrate to the US, he learns English slowly and makes friends as he watches his parents be entrepreneurial by starting their own bakery after working hourly jobs. When he is an adult, Thien becomes a citizen to vote. I love how the earthy color palette and gorgeous illustration style help to narrate Pham’s personal memoir.